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violin construction and quality
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risk
littleton, Colorado
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November 19, 2014 - 1:26 am
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So I went out violin shopping and had the opportunity to play over 20 violins. Im still a begginer for the most part but I learned a ton, just about tone quality and a bunch of other "stuff" lol.

I told the guy im open to anything, so he brought in unknown to me violins that ranged from $400 to $21000 both new and old.

From this experience I would group all violins into 3 categories.

1. Learning violins which produce sound ranging from wtf-ok.

2. Advanced violins which range greatly in tone and projection making playing/learning much more enjoyable. 

3. Holy cow.

 

I didnt pay any attention to price tags or where they were made and could instantly tell which of these categories they fell in. Of the two really expensive "holy cow" violins I played I found one which I could say would be my voice, the other I didnt like because it would be like the voice of a stuffy opera singer, if that makes any sense. 

So long story... somewhat shorter, what about it makes these violins "holy cow"? I understand the jumo from poor quality to a nice and beautiful instrument, but what is it that makes these expensive objects so.... magical?

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DanielB
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November 19, 2014 - 2:27 am
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Well, if you're referring to the sound itself and not issues like playability and comfort, the difference will mostly be in the harmonic content. 

Anything with a string that can be bowed will produce the fundamental pitch.  Like if you play an open A, probably 440 hz.  But resonances within each instrument, due to everything from wood density and thickness at various spots to the size and shape of some of the inside parts, the finish, the exact size and placement of the F-holes and pretty much everything else you can think of, will affect the harmonic content of that single note.. What pitches other than the fundamental that are produced as part of the sound in a mix.  That is what determines the "timbre" of the instrument.  It's distinctive voice on a single note.  The timbre is how you can tell the difference between the sound of a bugle and a flute playing the same note.  It is also how you tell the difference between something that is your ideal of how a violin should sound, versus something that doesn't sound like that.

The same factors can and do affect other things.  How evenly the instrument can produce the tones actually used in music, for example.  Like if it is far better at producing an A than a D or something like that.  If it is too uneven in how well it can produce the pitches, then it is not going to be as good for playing music as one that is.  Or those same factors may affect how quickly the instrument can begin to vibrate in reaction to you beginning to bow a note.  That would be "responsiveness".  If it is too slow to respond, then when playing fast changes it may "choke", having unintended pauses in the sound.  Obviously not so good for playing more advanced pieces, though a beginner may not notice it when doing beginner level material.

There's a lot of other stuff as well.  More than I know of, certainly. 

But with an instrument as small, light, and essential as an acoustic violin, pretty much everything matters to at least some degree.  The whole instrument vibrates when you play and so every part has at least some small part to play in how it sounds.

So the short answer to your question would be "everything".  But there are scientific studies done pretty much every year, and articles and books written on what the experts think they have figured out about the secrets that make some violins "magical".  So apparently they still don't know enough to be able to agree on the matter.  LOL

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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MrYikes
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November 19, 2014 - 6:12 am
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Beautifully stated.  I wish we had stickies here.

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happyjet
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November 19, 2014 - 2:00 pm
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DanielB said

Or those same factors may affect how quickly the instrument can begin to vibrate in reaction to you beginning to bow a note.  That would be "responsiveness".  If it is too slow to respond, then when playing fast changes it may "choke", having unintended pauses in the sound.  Obviously not so good for playing more advanced pieces, though a beginner may not notice it when doing beginner level material

I never knew this. Thanks for posting it :)

Playing a piece is easy... Playing it right is not...

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bfurman
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November 19, 2014 - 6:52 pm
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risk said

...I would group all violins into 3 categories.

1. Learning violins which produce sound ranging from wtf-ok.

2. Advanced violins which range greatly in tone and projection making playing/learning much more enjoyable. 

3. Holy cow.

  ...

So long story... somewhat shorter, what about it makes these violins "holy cow"? I understand the jumo from poor quality to a nice and beautiful instrument, but what is it that makes these expensive objects so.... magical?

I think if that sound could be quantified, reliably reproduced, and commodified, then there would be very little left to the artistry of the luthier apart from cosmetics (and, perhaps, ergonomics).  The instruments having those qualities are expensive precisely because they are rare, and they are rare because they are either happy accidents or the product of complex experience.

One thing that is certain is that multiple factors go into producing an exceptionally resonant and harmonically rich instrument.  (This is equally true for other stringed instruments besides the violin.)  First, there is the quality of the wood, which is a product of the species, growing region, weather variations, harvesting, and seasoning.  Next, there is the geometry of the plates, which determines how sympathetic they are to various frequencies.  This is where the luthier arguably has the most control.  Then, there is the quality of the varnish, which is a complex composite that historically includes a ground layer (typically pumice).  Both the composition and the means of application have an effect.  Finally, there are the extrinsic factors of "breaking in," aging, and maintenance.

Many questions persist about the effects of time on wood, but it's generally thought that the pores lose volatiles and the organic components crystallize.  This leads to a reduction in acoustic damping (loss tangent) across the frequency spectrum.  There are artificial processes that can simulate those effects (controlled pyrolysis, formaldehyde treatment, etc.), and they are useful for improving quality control in new instruments.  However, it's not enough to focus on any one component of the final instrument.

Out of curiosity, at what price level did "holy cow" begin?banana

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risk
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November 19, 2014 - 7:52 pm
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It was about 12k but I think that might be the blur between the two. Ide be confident in saying 16k

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